The Myth of Stress

Where stress really comes from and how to live a happier and healthier life.

The Myth of Stress Revealed - Part 2

There is no such thing as a stressor. Here's why.

In part one of this post, I suggested that the common notion of stress arising from external circumstances is a myth. Stress doesn't come from what's going on in your life. It comes from your thoughts about what's going on in your life. For some people, this is obvious, but most of us still believe strongly in the myth of stress as externally produced.

Consider the way we use the word stressor. The APA's website mentions "common long-term stressors" like family illness, recovery after injury, and career pressures. The CDC address "job stressors" such as sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination. In the UK, the HSE also focus on stressors that affect the workforce.

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The word stressor was coined in the mid-20th century by Hans Selye, the founder of the modern stress concept, to refer to things that provoke stress. People around the world now complain about stressors everyday, and the word shows up throughout professional and lay literature. But in reality there is no such thing as a stressor. Why not? Because nothing has the inherent power to provoke stress.

Take public speaking, for example, which is regularly listed as a top stressor. It's true that many people experience stress when speaking in front of groups, but it's also true that many people don't. The same is true for losing a job, being physically disabled, or having little money. There are people for whom these experiences are stressful, but there are also those for whom they aren't. Are these unstressed out people immune somehow to the stressor they're facing? Of course not.

Someone who loses their job and believes "I shouldn't have been fired" will experience anger and resentment. But someone who is excited to make a career change, start their own business, go back to school, or do something else they look forward to would be in the same situation physically (they lost their job), but in a very different place mentally. So you can't say that losing a job is inherently stress-producing.

Stress is never a given. There are people who get divorced amicably. There are people who pack up and move with no emotional toll. There is no stressor "out there" in the world. We experience stress—or we don't—depending on what we believe.

During the financial crisis, I worked with hundreds of executives who struggled as a result of their thoughts about job security. When their beliefs changed, so did their emotional experience—and they were then able to focus on the task at hand more effectively. This is an important point. The goal isn't to just think differently. It's to act differently as well. But as long as you believe in stressors, you are powerless to truly shift how you handle challenges.

I'm not the first person to recognize that our emotional states come from our beliefs instead of our environment. Aristotle proposed a cognitive theory of emotions 2,300 years ago. Epictetus, the slave turned philosopher, remarked famously that "we are disturbed not by events, but by the views which we take of them"—a basic tenet of Stoicism.

More recently, psychologists Richard Lazarus and Magda Arnold emphasized the importance of appraisal in creating emotions, as have Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, and their followers in cognitive therapy. In spiritual circles, Buddhism has long attempted to regulate emotions through the mind. And "spiritual innovator" Byron Katie is helping many people today transform their lives by inquiring into their beliefs.

So why, then, does everyone still believe that things "stress us out," and why do we use the word stressor with such blind conviction? In The Myth of Stress, I suggest that our global confusion stems largely from one man.
 
Hans Selye, mentioned above as the father of the stress concept, taught the whole world how stress worked. He was charismatic, tireless, and persuasive. Unfortunately, he was also fundamentally wrong. But before his message could be corrected, it was accepted as gospel. Countless websites and articles continue to proclaim Selye the father of stress, and continue to teach people that stressors exist, that something has the power to provoke stress on its own.

As a result, there are now hundreds of millions of people who believe that life is inherently and inevitably stressful, and who, as a result, turn to "stress management" solutions like relaxation, exercise, and breathing in order to cope with their "stressors." It's time we learned the truth about stress. It's time we identified the thoughts that actually create our stress and learned to dismantle them one by one.

How? In part three of The Myth of Stress Revealed, I'll start showing you. But until then, do you agree that there are no stressors, or do you still believe there are? What experience or situation would you say is inherently stressful, if any? I'd like to hear your thoughts.

If you have questions in the meantime, ask them in the comments section, through my website, or via Twitter.

 

Andrew Bernstein is the founder of ActivInsight and the author of The Myth of Stress.

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